Sporting Life

Sporting Life: In defeat, Kohli graces rivalry with generous words

"Well played," Virat Kohli, the Indian cricket captain, can say to the brilliant Pakistanis and move on. There, said it. Basic courtesy fulfilled. Credit given. It is Sunday and India have lost the Champions Trophy final to the one team they are not allowed to lose to.

But Kohli won't settle for a few, terse words and a blank face. Instead he offers his rivals sentences of praise. He's even filmed laughing with some Pakistani players and he's going to pay a little bit for that because a few jingoistic idiots say, how dare he. Cricket for them is a weapon, for Kohli and his team it is still a game. Young men are making a necessary distinction.

Kohli has to be hurting because you don't get to such greatness without pride. He must be furious with himself for he's been dismissed twice in two balls, so to speak. You can tell him, 'This happens, mate', but great players don't accept that. It happens to others, not them, not when there's a chase, not when they wait for such chases, not when they think they can chase down anything. Still he finds a smile.

Wearing defeat, in a sense, is harder in the modern age only because prize-giving ceremonies in most sports go on as long as ancient coronations. Speeches and interviews, confetti and victory laps, hype and bombast. As if the entire reputation of nations rests on hitting a ball or winning a medal. Victory has become too exaggerated and defeat too monumental.

At the Australian Open final, from the Nadal-Federer post-match handshake to both of them posing with their trophies took roughly 24 minutes. In other sports it might be longer. Through it all the defeated - sweaty, humbled, despairing, lonely - stand unprotected in the gaze of the camera. Where else is a human's worst moment as a professional available for such public viewing?

Still, athletes find their better selves in such moments and we don't applaud them enough for it. At the end of the NBA Finals, LeBron James, the defeated, and Kevin Durant, the victor, head straight for each other to embrace and exchange a few words. On Sunday, Kohli, who occasionally struggles to locate the spirit of cricket, held onto it tightly. He is 28 and complicated, provocative yet thoughtful, and on Sunday he was sterling. Mostly because he found the right words.

Kohli's job isn't diplomacy but it is leadership and he behaved like a grown-up in a game which can bring out a childishness in people. He did not flinch from losing or see it as a shame, for this is sport and defeat is part of the bargain; he did not praise his rivals once but repeatedly and spoke not of luck but their skill. The best rivalries are built on edginess yet also generosity. If you don't recognise the quality of your rival, how can your victories over them ever have meaning?


Pakistan players celebrating with the ICC Champions Trophy on Sunday after their comprehensive 180-run victory over India, who had trounced them in the first group game. PHOTO: REUTERS

Kohli congratulated the "Pakistan team and their fans" and acclaimed their turnaround in the competition. "(It) speaks volumes of the kind of talent they have in their side." He noted India had been "outplayed" and that the other team had "shown better skill and shown better composure in pressure situations". He insisted that Pakistan were "more intense and more passionate on the day" and that "you have to accept and admire sometimes the skill of the opposition and see that they have also come to win a game of cricket".

Actions speak loudest, we are told, but words also matter in sport and they are used both idly to undermine referees and tellingly to fight for equality. Words entertain and educate, which is why we still recite Muhammad Ali's poetry, regurgitate Vince Lombardi's quotes and remember baseballer Lou Gehrig's speech when he said, even while dying of a disease named after him: "Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." Lucky because he had been a part of baseball.

Kohli's job isn't diplomacy but it is leadership and he behaved like a grown-up in a game which can bring out a childishness in people. He did not flinch from losing or see it as a shame, for this is sport and defeat is part of the bargain; he did not praise his rivals once but repeatedly and spoke not of luck but their skill. The best rivalries are built on edginess yet also generosity.

The words on the cricket field on Sunday were not quite as memorable, but people will have listened. Indian. Pakistani. Crying. Yelling. Kids. Parents. Coaches. Even bigots. They will have seen opposing players talking as they marched onto the field and later when they finished. They will have seen banter on the pitch but no juvenile hostility.

And they will have watched Kohli. Being gracious, nothing more. Being a sporting man. Finding the right tone for a rivalry amidst all the excess baggage this contest carries. "Well spoken after the game," tweeted Shane Warne; "Impressed how well @imVkohli spoke post match. Gracious in defeat," added former Kiwi captain Brendon McCallum.

People were hearing Kohli and Jonathan Swift, the writer, would have known why. "The proper words in the proper places," he once wrote, "are the true definition of style." On Sunday in London, Virat Kohli lost a match but found something else.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2017, with the headline 'In defeat, Kohli graces rivalry with generous words'. Print Edition | Subscribe